Regaining Balance in 2016
A cognitive behavioral approach to bringing back the spring in your step.
Posted Dec 30, 2015
Every year around the holidays, stresses mount and the need for therapy services booms. I see this year after year in my therapy practice. It’s not just one factor however that leads to this. It isn’t simply the stress of holiday shopping or challenging family dynamics. It isn’t just final exams or upcoming college applications, or shorter, darker days. Ultimately, it is a constellation of factors that coincide and cyclically feed off of each other often leading to declining mental health.
Take the case of Sarah (an entirely made up person, of course!) She had a wonderful summer on the beach with family, resting and relaxing. She did regular yoga, went for long peaceful walks, saw friends, read her favorite books, drank her green juices and was overall pretty content. When school came around, she was feeling highly optimistic. Full of energy, she committed to a full load of classes, an afterschool job, and a volunteer commitment helping special needs children.
Over time though, she started to feel overwhelmed. Classes amped up and became more demanding. Priding herself in being a good student, she started losing confidence and becoming anxious. To have more time to study, she stopped seeing her friends and started relying on fast, convenient foods. Her yoga practice also fell to the wayside. She became more short-tempered with friends and family and felt annoyed by them all the time. So she began socially isolating herself. In a matter of months, she went from top of the world joyful to dragging by in life. She stayed up late to work and missed out on sleep, was too late to eat a healthy breakfast, and the cycle kept worsening.
The case of Sarah although made up, is essentially a conglomeration of countless patients I’ve seen over the years. One thing leads to the next and so on. When patients wind up in my office, I often go about with a simple but often highly powerful intervention. I attempt to help them regain balance through using a STAR chart (sample found here, and blank copy here). Developed by Bert Epstein, PsyD for the Feel Better Fast psychotherapy group, the chart is a highly effective way of helping individuals set goals for change. By focusing on sleep, nutrition, exercise, relaxation, interpersonal activities, and hobbies, it allows patients to see how refocusing on the basics can make a profound change.
I have been shocked countless times when working with individuals how off balance even a single factor could be. During conversations around the chart, I’ve been amazed at what is revealed: sleeping only 5 hours; 6 caffeinated drinks a day; no social life; a frantic schedule due to no time management skills. Sometimes just changing one factor improves mood by a significant amount. In fact, when patients are debating psychotropics, I often suggest simply fixing the basics first before jumping into medication trials—increase your sleep to the recommended amount, exercise, I say. See, if it makes any difference first. After all medication won’t magically fix a failing social life or give you the endorphins that a run might. So try it for yourself as we ring in the New Year. It is an excellent time to come back to center and live life more joyfully again.